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Rigoberta Menchu addresses the role of women in Quiche society and devotes several chapters of her narrative to gender issues. I, Rigoberta Menchu is not about women in Guatemala society, but any discussion of race, class, and politics must naturally include gender as a matter of course. More important than gender to Rigoberta Menchu is the abuse of power. In her narrative, Rigoberta Menchu focuses on the ways wealthy business owners and ladinos in Guatemala abuse their power and privilege by exploiting and dehumanizing the indigenous population. Moreover, Rigoberta Menchu depicts the indigenous Mayan culture as being inherently gender egalitarian. For example, women drink at parties just like the men do. "That is something incredible in these towns," the author notes, "because it's not only the men who want to let themselves go and forget about their problems for a while…It's not unusual to see our women drinking," (206).
Abuse of power is not the sole domain of the male, either. Rigoberta Menchu points out that even nuns can abuse their power as religious authorities. "The nuns whom I lived with made me sad. With their comfortable lives, they were wasteful women who did nothing for others," (246). Here, Rigoberta Menchu shows that abuse of power is the underlying cause of political oppression. Rape is portrayed as one type of abuse of power, just as murder and economic exploitation are. Gender is not the most important factor in the injustices that are experienced by Guatemala's poor.
Rigoberta's life in Guatemala was not necessarily more difficult because she was a woman. The gender egalitarian Quiche society precludes the author from even presuming that patriarchy has any influence in her own personal worldview. Yet her encounters with the oppressors -- the ladinos -- does highlight the way that patriarchy is a symptom of political oppression. Patriarchy oppresses women; as Menchu shows, patriarchy also oppresses societies that champion the rights and roles of women in the society.
Menchu does not write from a self-conscious feminist perspective and yet her testimony is naturally feminist in nature. Resisting the oppressor is part of the feminist discourse, which can also draw from Marxism to form theories of liberation. In Menchu's case, Christianity can also be a tool of liberation. Menchu draws out a theme of underdog victory from the Christian doctrine, rather than focusing on the more patriarchal and oppressive elements embedded in Christian discourse, dogma, and history. The Quiche people have not allowed Christianity to become a tool of social oppression: "Our people have taken Catholicism as just another channel of expression, not our one and only belief," (9). Any attempts to belittle the indigenous religions and shamanistic culture are met with scorn: "there's not much hope of winning our people's hearts" when the priests speak badly of the tribal leaders (9).
One way Rigoberta's narrative is unique is that she spends several chapters describing Quiche life from a female perspective. Being a woman shapes Rigoberta's worldviews, because she perceives her people's ceremonies and spirituality from the perspective of a woman. This perspective does not, however, account for the injustices she experiences as a Quiche woman in the dominant ladino society. Quiche society does have role differentiation between the genders, but there is no sense that women are domestic servants as they might be in the dominant white culture. One remarkable anecdote testifying to the egalitarian nature of Quiche society is the age twelve rite of passage involving the bestowing of an animal onto the child, male or female. As a female child, Rigoberta was not spared the responsibility of looking after her pig, even if some of her other community and household chores were gender segregated. For example, Rigoberta does note that women do laundry on Sunday.
Therefore, poverty and political oppressions are certainly not products of Quiche society but of the ladino or white Spanish society. Rigoberta points out that the Quiche society does not distinguish between homosexual and heterosexual love: "Our people don't differentiate between people who are homosexual and people who aren't; that only happens when we go outside of our community. We don't have the rejection of homosexuality the ladinos do," (60). As Menchu states, "everything is a part of nature" in the Quiche culture (60).
The only time that Rigoberta Menchu hints that being a woman might be difficult is when she notes that "The community is very suspicious of a woman like me who is twenty-three but they don't know where I've been or where I've lived" (61). It is possible that the community might also shun a male who had gone out into the world as Rigoberta had done. "A woman has no problem, whether she works on her own or collectively, whether she's married or single, as long as she obeys the laws of the community," (78). This utopic vision contrasts sharply with Rigoberta Menchu's experiences in the ladino society, during her life as a domestic servant in Guatemala City. While working in Guatemala City, Rigoberta also met one of her female mentors: Candelaria. Candelaria is powerful, willing to shift back and forth between her Indian identity and an adopted ladina one. Her awareness of the disadvantages of that identity are more important than any awareness of the disadvantage of being female.
One reason why the author does not present gender as a major factor in political oppression is that she watched both her father and her brother be tortured and humiliated by the ladinos. When her mom is raped and tortured, gender is not the problem: the problem is the ladino oppression of Indians. Rigoberta Menchu's testimony relates to life in the Quiche community and also to life as a political activist with the Peasant Unity Committee (CUC). Gender issues are discussed in a limited manner during her descriptions of traditional community life, highlighting the egalitarian nature of Quiche society. The discussions of political, economic, and social oppression of the ladinos does not include any in-depth analysis of how gender manifests as a marker of the underclass. Instead, Rigoberta Menchu focuses on the pure reality of the oppression of indigenous people at the hands of the ladinos. For example, the author was struck by a comment she overheard. A peasant ladino boy said, "Yes we're poor but we're not Indians," (119). The boy's comment shows that Indians were the ultimate underclass in Guatemalan society. Menchu states, "It was very painful for me to accept that an Indian was inferior to a ladino," (119).
Yet it is the ladinos that Menchu presents as the ultimate patriarchal oppressors. The author does not dwell much on the ways women are oppressed in the ladino society. However, Menchu seems to understand that the ladino culture is one that is radically different from her own. Whereas in Quiche culture, women are spiritually, financially, intellectually, politically, and morally equal to men, in the ladino culture the women are second-class citizens. Menchu observes different gender dynamics during her domestic work with the family in Guatemala City. The ladino culture encourages women to sacrifice their creative pursuits, and role differentiation is oppressive rather than liberating as it is for the indigenous people. I, Rigoberta Menchu is a perfect example of a feminist narrative that is not derivative of typical feminist themes and discourse. Menchu simply paints a picture of native Guatemalan society that is gender egalitarian and idealistic enough to make the ladino culture seem rigid and repressed. Discussions of the political empowerment of women are unnecessary, because Menchu is herself empowered and never questions her own ability to be a leader to her people. Her father and brother also never question Rigoberta's motives, even though the author purposely shuns her ability to fulfill the role of wife and mother. Rigoberta's shunning of motherhood parallels her earlier comment in the…[continue]
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